Today, we give you a primer on the coal crisis.

The coal crisis explained

There’s a massive supply and demand imbalance in the coal market, resulting in a surge in prices. Australia’s Newcastle thermal coal, a global benchmark, has gone up from $50/metric ton to about $200/metric ton (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Skyrocketing coal prices

The imbalance occurred because supply went down at the same time demand is increasing.

Increase in demand

There are two reasons for the increase in demand.

The first is that gas prices have increased. Thanks to colder than average winter temperatures last year, inventory in Europe is lower than normal. This, coupled with a rebound in economic activities, led to a surge in gas prices (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Natural gas commodities futures

As gas prices have increased, electricity producers are switching back to coal, which in turn drives coal prices up.

The surge in coal prices affects different countries differently. The US is affected, but by a smaller amount than China and other countries. In many Asian countries, coal is still the primary energy source. As economic activities rebounded, coal imports (especially from Australia) by emerging countries increased. For example, India doubled its import of Australian coal, on a year-over-year basis.

Meanwhile, China has banned imports from Australia (in retaliation to Australia’s call to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic). As such, China searched far and wide for replacement supplies. It’s buying up coal from the Philippines, Kazakhstan, and other countries. Yet, supply is still inadequate, leading the country to ration power usage, which in turn will hurt Q3 GDP output.

Fortunately for Australia, other Asian countries stepped in to fill in the demand. Demand for Australia’s coal went up by 56% and 65% in South Korea and in Japan, respectively.

Decrease in supply

At the same time, supply has been declining due to incentives in moving towards a greener source of energy. Miners in the US have cut capacity by 40% in the past 6 years. Spain shut down about 50% of its coal production last year, and plans to phase out all of its coal powered power plants by 2030.

Despite the recent increase in prices, coal producers in the western world are not incentivized to build capacity. It not only takes a while to expand additional mines or build new ones, but long term prospects of coal are just not there. A month ago, China pledged to stop funding the construction of coal powered plants abroad. The expectation is that as soon as prices stabilize, everyone (in developed economies) will switch back to natural gas or renewable energy.

This has been a boon for Peabody Energy. Early in 2021, the company’s prospects were rather dim. Coming out of a recent bankruptcy and high levels of debt, the company was trading at ~1x EV/EBITDA. It was a stock no one liked, operating in an industry (coal) that everyone hated. Its valuation was depressed. But in this “perfect storm” environment, the company’s business (mostly exporting Australian coal to Asian countries, where appetite for coal is still high) all the sudden became in vogue.

Figure 3: Peabody energy share price YTD

Our team members at Vested may own investments in some of the aforementioned companies/assets. Different types of investments involve varying degrees of risk, and there can be no assurance that any specific investment or strategy will be suitable or profitable for an investor’s portfolio. Note that past performance is not indicative of future returns. Investing in the stock market carries risk; the value of your investment can go up, or down, returning less than your original investment. Tax laws are subject to change and may vary depending on your circumstances.

This article is meant to be informative and not to be taken as an investment advice, and may contain certain “forward-looking statements,” which may be identified by the use of such words as “believe,” “expect,” “anticipate,” “should,” “planned,” “estimated,” “potential” and other similar terms. Examples of forward-looking statements include, without limitation, estimates with respect to financial condition, market developments, and the success or lack of success of particular investments (and may include such words as “crash” or “collapse”). All are subject to various factors, including, without limitation, general and local economic conditions, changing levels of competition within certain industries and markets, changes in interest rates, changes in legislation or regulation, and other economic, competitive, governmental, regulatory and technological factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from projected results.

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